Finding Hazel Transcript

ROBERT BELL: I want to start by saying...what a unique honour and privilege it is to be here. I wanted to thank, also, the selection committee for allowing my class's story and their project about this one girl from our school to reach a wider audience. So, I'd like to begin with, just by expressing my gratitude.

This is Dundas Central Public School. This is where I spend a...big chunk of my life. On your left is what it looks like now. That's the building that I walk into every day.

On the right is what it looked like for the girl that we are going to talk about. That's what the building looked like. It was built in 1857.

And, just, I wanted to give you an idea of the history that this building holds. A number of years ago, some of us on staff...we knew that there was a ladder in the caretakers' closet, and we didn't know where it went.

And, so, we took a look. It went into the attic of our school, and...I wish I could express the 'gasp,' the emotional 'gasp' I felt...coming up out of the ladder into this attic.

The first thing you notice is that the walls and the joists of this building, and it stretches...back into shadow, are filled, filled, with the names and initials of students who have snuck up [LAUGHTER] over the last 163 years to put their names in there, and thankfully, so many of them have dated it. There are romances from the 1870s that are up there. was a moment for us, I think, collectively as a staff, to realize what a time capsule our building is, and I wanted to start with that to preface what I'm going to talk about…and I'll loop back to that in the end.

On your left is my class from last year, this is a class of 10- and 11-year-olds, and on the right is what they would've looked like a hundred years prior.

We began...I knew we were coming up to the hundredth anniversary of the influenza epidemic...and I wanted to teach my kids about it and to get into a unit about it.

And it began in my head as...every teacher over the summer, you're sort of constructing what things are going to look like in the year to come...and in my head it was a very traditional unit.

And...but I got thinking about our school and perhaps, because of that trip to the attic, I wondered had that epidemic actually touched the lives of any of the people at our school at the time.

And...a block from my building is an incredible institution called the Dundas Museum & Archives, and I went knocking and I asked Anna Patterson, the Education Coordinator there, 'Can you help me with this...had the influenza epidemic had any impact on our school directly?' And sure enough it had.

We discovered, thanks to the Museum, that a girl named Hazel Isabel Layden had died after contracting the disease.

And that changed everything because we’d begun the unit, again, in a very traditional way, and for my students it was like an 'in' for myself, it was like a light switch went off...and this went from being a story about a global event to a very, very personal event.

And, the engine behind that event was a question that the kids ultimately generated, and the question was: 'Who was Hazel? Who was Hazel Layden?'

To answer that question, we knew we had to reach out, in the first [place] to other organizations and institutions, and one of the first groups we went to were the people that gave us her name in the first place, and that was the Dundas Museum.

They helped us begin to answer that question. They provided us with artifacts and resources that certainly I would not have otherwise had access to.

And these records...and these are just a few examples...these records created really what I would call critical architecture, if you will, to the unit. They gave us the facts of the beginnings and endings of things, the places, the street names, the addresses, and the dates.

They also, though, began to make this real.

Students are, particularly my students, are used to me [doing] a lot of talking, and for them to hold these primary documents began to bring an authority to our search, and very much to make it real.

For me what made it real, and where the gravity of the unit, I think, began for me, was when I saw her parents' names on her death certificate. I'm a father, and...I can't imagine the hell that...began when that document was filled out for them.

For my students, it was her obituary. And, again, reading that was, I think, where...that was when the real hook sank in for them and they realized that we were beginning to work and to talk about a real person.

I want to make a note, just...because I know I'm speaking to the choir here, but...having kids work with primary documents was a game-changer for me, and certainly has changed the way I've continued to teach subsequently.

My students' duo-tangs in Social Studies were normally very traditional ones, maybe like the ones you had growing up, certainly what I had growing up, and nothing wrong with that, but it was...I suspect, at least in my case as a teacher looking was pretty formulaic.

This year that I'm speaking of and the years...the year I'm in now...our duo-tangs are filled with primary documentations. The kids' duo-tangs had birth certificates and death records and copies of all of these things...which I think led a, brought in a certain authenticity and realness to the experience.

One of the other [sets] of resources that the Museum put in our hands was a lot of the journalism from the period. And from that journalism in particular, we got a sense of the disease's impact on our community.

We got to read, really, the public record of the events and responses to the influenza epidemic. We also got glimpses of very personal documents.

This is the Layden family's card of thanks, and it is their letter to the community saying 'thank you' to everything the community did, and one of the things I love that my students took away was this idea that, though we are surrounded in moments of crisis, like a global epidemic...with emotions such as fear and grief and confusion...that we don't cower, and we don't hide in our homes, we get out and we help our neighbours.

They learned that the scouts, their job...the scouts were organized and they brought food and clean linen to all people throughout the community who couldn't otherwise access it. All the teachers that were at my school, they ceased to be teachers and they became nurses in the community.

All the car dealers lent out their fleets so that people in the rural communities around Dundas could be...could they could get nurses and medical care to them. All of the people with cheque books wrote big, big cheques.

That the community came together...and that was, I think, just empowerment for students, and particularly in our era of climate change and other seemingly overwhelming a really important message for us to pass on to our kids.

One of the other people we reached out to was this man, and I would love you all to shake his hand, you would adore him. His name is Stan Nowak. He is a gem in the crown of my community.

He is a...he's an amateur historian. He...loves Dundas, and he gave us a tour of our community's cemetery, and he taught the kids about their history through the cemetery, and he's a magnificent storyteller, and he also helped us find Hazel's gravestone.

I want to just note that artifacts like the gravestone, or some of the other resources that we worked with at the Museum, they make possible an intimacy with history...that I think is key, particularly for kids. They remind us that large events take place on the personal level, that even global events are lived by individuals.

And so, for instance, if you were to ask my students about...'Describe for me the influenza epidemic of [1918-1919],' they would begin, I suspect, by telling you about Hazel's gravestone…this tour had a big impact on them.

One of the other key groups that we reached out to was Knox Presbyterian Church. We found out through various records that Hazel's family was actively involved in this church, and so we reached out to Reverend Garrison, who's the individual standing there, and she got talking with her congregation.

She...found for us, and I'm getting chilly up here, you can't see the goosebumps that are coming on my arms now, but...she found out that Hazel's family is still a member, Hazel's family is still involved at Knox Presbyterian Church and that Mrs. Barbara Weavers, who's on your right...sits in the pews every Sunday, and she is in fact Hazel's niece.

What she brought for us was a series of family stories and anecdotes. She about the intimacy of students held the wedding photos photos of a range of Hazel's relatives.

For instance, we got to see the photo of Hazel's mom, who's there on your left, and that's a church photo, that's one of Hazel's sisters...Mima Layden. The students got to stand at the baptismal font where Hazel was baptized.

They saw the plaques where her brothers' names are for their service in World War II, and they looked through recital programs. Hazel came from a very musical family.

And again, all of these artifacts, incidental and otherwise, brought forth...helped us reconstruct Hazel's life in deeply meaningful ways.

However, you couldn't talk about Hazel's life without talking about her death, and the more we talked about her death, the more the kids wanted to know about what killed her, and so we reached out to McMaster University, and in particular to McMaster's Children & Youth University, who is run by another incredible individual whose name is Sandeep Raha...just an incredible individual.

And he and his team at MCYU helped the kids understand and learn about the influenza virus.

They ran a series of five different workshops with the kids that ran them through the pathology and epidemiology of the disease...and they helped the kids understand the impact of influenza on the human body.

One of our final activities...I just had to note this because it was so great...Dr. Raha took kids through infection models, and so how infections spread, and then there was a series of cool activities the kids did.

But at the end, they turned off all the lights in the room we were working in and they brought out a black light, and then they said one of the things you didn't realize is that...whenever we met with his grad students we all shook hands, and one of his grad students had been infected with a substance and had shaken the students' hands, and then as the hour had progressed, that substance had transferred throughout the room and on to other people...and it was an incredibly good example for demonstrating how quickly, in a closed room with 28 people, a virus could spread.

It was magnificent. We had two culminating activities as part of this five-month unit.

One of them was an interactive website that we put together with with MCYU and their team, and it was submitted [to] Defining Moments Canada...and I know many of you know this organization, it's magnificent...and, the kids' submission won, which was a thrill for them.

The second thing we did is...we were invited back to the Museum to open an exhibit, and so the Museum team helped them...the kids learned through the Museum staff how to construct an exhibit in a logical and coherent way...and they [helped] the students curate their own exhibit. And, that's what it looked like when it was done.

We had an opening night. Instead of wine and cheese, we had cheese and apple juice [LAUGHTER], and one of the things we found out was that Hazel was an avid piano player, and so we did digging around and we found a big piece of music we're almost positive she knew, and we had two girls who played that music that evening for the community that came out.

That event brought together...a lot of people. It brought together historians and scientists from McMaster, the parents, obviously, and the students, community members...and it let the students create something real and contribute in a very...manifestly real way to their community's history.

Despite all of the artifacts, however, that we went through, we never found Hazel's photograph, and it brought us back to our original question, which was: 'Who was Hazel Layden?’ and to some degree, we questioned for a while, did we really know, and it's interesting the power that a single photograph has, to know what somebody looks like.

And then, you know...and this is what I love about was one of the kids in the class that pointed out that we'd been learning about a girl who ran in our playground, we'd been learning about a girl who learned in our classroom, like literally in our classroom.

She played in our streets, and her voice had been heard in my students' homes.

I'll say that again. Her voice had been heard in my students' homes...and I'll never forget the little guy who put his hand up in class, and announced, 'You know what? Hazel was one of us. That's who Hazel Layden was.

And what we decided we would do...I told my class about that attic, and what we decided we would do is...we made a plaque, very simple, you'll see it in a sec, and we all signed and we put Hazel's name down there, and then I snuck up to the attic, the way so many people had for 163 years, and I put that board on, I nailed it to one of the joists there, so that Hazel's name, and my student's name, is where it should be, which is among that recorded artifact of our building.

The last thing...second last thing I want to show this. This was the highlight, this handshake.

The kids in my class of them you know, Mrs. Barbara Weavers...they discover two members, surviving members, of Hazel's family who did not know of each other, and we invited them both.

And...Mr. Maloney is shaking Mrs. Weavers's hand, and that is a reuniting, if you will, of two disparate, or unknown to each other, members of her family that came together at that exhibit.

It was a very good evening.

I think Hetty has a very short video I'm going to conclude with...and from that I just want to say thank you very much.



ROB BELL: There was a child that went to our school who actually had passed away as a result of the epidemic, and that changed everything…

Finding out that a student that sat in our classroom was so deeply affected by this pandemic made it very personal for them.


ROB BELL: So, the Hazel Project started as a traditional unit. It became a series of community partnerships. First and foremost is our relationship with the Dundas Museum & Archives and McMaster [Children] & Youth University, those are two of the primary institutions that enriched and deepened this experience for the kids and their learning.

SANDEEP RAHA: The MCYU is a program that started about eight years ago. It's a community outreach initiative. We try to bring children from across Hamilton.

We try to bring them on campus for monthly lectures given by faculty. We have a second arm of the program, which goes out to schools and deploys interactive workshops with our central credo, which is 'Question, Discover, Create!'

Our students from McMaster taught the students about the biology of the flu, how the flu works, how spreading of the flu works...the kids from the elementary school taught our McMaster students the history of the flu in Dundas, and specifically how it impacted the life of this young girl named Hazel.

GIRL 1: Hazel was a 15-year-old girl who went to the school and she died from pneumonia, and also the Spanish flu, in 1918.

GIRL 2: So we went to the Museum & Archives a lot. We did...a lot of just sort of all-around research with the Museum.

You can kind of all enjoy it because, like, we all had a part of it because we're...I think, we’re all mostly from this it was kind of like 'hey, she walked on that floor!' and then I walked on that floor...that's me.


ROB BELL: If you go into the attic of our school, you will find all these names of...the children have written their names over the last 160 years...on the beams, but Hazel's name's not there.


ROB BELL: We’ve written her name on a plaque, as well as the names of all of my students, and we're gonna go up and nail that to the joists so that Hazel's there, where she should be. We were all here for a girl that died a hundred years ago, I mean that's really what drew us all together.


ROB BELL: And, it struck me know, you think about a life and a life ending...that the story of a life doesn't end when that life does.